A few days ago, I was lucky enough to be sitting in a tent on the beautiful Rolling Stones Ranch in the Blackfoot Valley of western Montana, listening to the speakers at the first public outreach session for the Obama administration’s America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) initiative.
I could look out a door of the tent to a small lake surrounded by a green pasture with a forest in the background and snow-capped mountains in the distance. As clouds passed, the lake and the mountains moved from shadow into sunshine, but despite the remarkable view outside, it was not difficult to concentrate on the discussion inside.
I have participated in a couple of thousand public meetings in my career, and, once in a while, such gatherings hold out the hope of a better future for us all. This was one of those times.
The idea of America’s Great Outdoors is for our nation’s top conservation and environmental officials to get out to rural communities and big cities to find out from people what conservation in America should look like in the 21st century and, then, to shape programs that, in a practical way, fulfill that vision.
In Montana the heads of federal agencies like U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Nancy Sutley, the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and Jon Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service first met with a small group of ranchers and other landowners to find out about the successful conservation of working lands in the Swan and Blackfoot Valleys and on the Rocky Mountain Front.
Then the officials from Washington — Montana’s two U.S senators, Max Baucus and John Tester — and Governor Brian Schweitzer had lunch with a couple of hundred Montana landowners, residents and representatives of local government and non-profit organizations and participated in a discussion moderated by Senator Baucus. (The next day, more roundtable discussions were held in three communities across the state).
So why did I find all this talk so encouraging?
First, it was clear that the Federal agency officials were actually there to listen. How often, if ever, does one find agency heads out in the countryside together talking to regular people about the future of their land and the places they call home?
There was a sense of humility about it all — summarized by Secretary Vilsack, who, in his brief remarks, spoke about conservation “from the bottom up” and about the profound role rural people and working lands continue to play in the life, culture and economy of America.
And in the ideas put forward by local people (ranchers, tribal leaders from the Flathead Indian Reservation, and folks from nearby towns) there was a sense of attachment to land and place, a constructive spirit, a determination to protect this graceful and productive landscape for the benefit of future generations, and a recognition that government is not the enemy but rather can be an important partner and supporter in achieving those goals.
Of course these sentiments will only mean something if the Obama administration’s conservation leaders can translate what they hear into practical and workable programs that, as Jon Jarvis said, “give people the tools to get conservation done.”
In the upcoming AGO listening sessions across the country, it is our responsibility at The Nature Conservancy to work with our many partners to provide the best and most successful conservation ideas for conserving important natural places and their associated working lands.
It is my expectation that, by this coming autumn, the federal agencies will then use these suggestions and those of thousands of other organizations and people to forge an operational AGO program that can produce lasting and tangible conservation results by
- Thinking in terms of whole ecosystems and watersheds,
- Focusing and coordinating federal programs and reliable funding on common conservation objectives, and
- Empowering citizens and agencies to fit programs to the diverse needs and cultures of America’s landscapes.
At the end of the day, I headed east from the Blackfoot back to Bozeman, where my son and his family live. On the way, I drove through the broad valley of the uppermost reach of the Missouri River. The sun illuminated broken clouds above the hills on the west side of the valley. Hay and wheat fields extended as far as I could see, and, to my left, a brilliant rainbow followed me along for a good 15 miles.
I could imagine Lewis and Clark coming through this magnificent place 200 years ago on their expedition to discover what the native-Americans already knew — that North America’s land and water represent a priceless inheritance for those who follow us.
In these last 200 years, while Americans have established a powerful bond with their land and a proud conservation tradition, we have not always fulfilled our responsibility to pass our natural resources along undamaged to the next generation.
In the fading afternoon light, as I approached Three Forks, where the rivers born in the mountains come together to form the Missouri which then, in turn, flows to the Mississippi and on to the now-devastated Gulf of Mexico, I thought that it is not too late to make amends with America’s relationship with nature; not too late to gather beneath the big tent of America’s great outdoors to forge a new direction for American conservation; not too late to remember that ultimately our future and that of our children are bound together with the future of our farms and forests, diverse wetlands, snow capped mountains and rivers flowing on through graceful valleys to the sea.
(Image: Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. Image credit: Ted Wood.)
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